Commentary

Isbell, Truckers lead path to real country

Updated: August 4, 2009, 6:02 PM ET
By Paul Shirley | Special to ESPN.com

It was late, it was dark and I was on a school bus, sitting next to a cute girl on the way home from a middle school track meet. I'd known her since we were both 9; she liked horses, had freckles and spiked one hell of a volleyball. So it wasn't out of the ordinary when she asked if she could put her head in my lap so she could sleep. It was unusual within the confines of the bus. Our friends were participating in the sort of controlled chaos that can only be found on a school bus: laughter, whispers and embarrassment of all sorts.

[+] EnlargeDrive-By Truckers
Karl Walter/Getty ImagesDrive-By Truckers aren't necessarily country, but they represent what country can be.

I told the girl yes, of course, and as she crumbled onto my legs, the Clint Black song that was playing on the bus radio seemed all too appropriate. I was 13, and I was pretty sure I was in love.

If my story seems too pat -- too precious -- remember that I grew up in a town of 700. My graduating class had 55 students. I spent the early Augusts of my childhood not at the swimming pool but at the 4-H fair. I was primed for an adult life spent with Budweiser, Skoal and my high school sweetheart. Happily, only one of those prophecies came true. It is the King of Beers, after all.

Why, then, have I always disliked country music?

The short answer is that I don't like country music because what most people call country music includes the Clint Black song I heard on the radio on that spring day years ago. It's pop country, a wicked creation that shares DNA donated by Nick Carter and Chris Daughtry. It's a genre that was spawned to sell records to suburban cowboys like the ones I grew up with. Now it's injected into the world's airwaves by acts such as Sugarland, Big & Rich and the oh-so-un-American Toby Keith. Their country music is as far from real country music as I was from really being in love with the girl whose amber hair fell onto my legs on that school bus.

Real country music is about heartache and lonely nights and whiskey. It's not chipper, it doesn't use synthesizers and it never, ever, involves putting any boots in any asses.

And while I've never liked what I thought to be "real" country, I always respected it. I can't listen to Hank Williams Sr., or even to Gram Parsons, which disappoints me. But I like what they tried to do. Their music paralleled the blues; it was genuine and authentic. I don't know that I can say the same about the architects of the pop-country revival of my teenage years. I'm sure Garth Brooks meant well, but I doubt that anyone would defend his authenticity.

Before I continue, I should note that -- while country music was an ever-present entity in my life before college -- I am no expert. I've listened to nary a Patsy Cline album in my years on earth, and it seems unlikely that I'll start now. As a child, I associated country music with twang, steel guitars and old people. I wasn't alone, which explains the success of the reinvention of the genre in the 1990s. But something about that reinvention didn't seem right, even to my hormone-addled teenage brain. I endured having my high school dances taken over by Deana Carter and Brooks & Dunn, and went away to college hoping never to hear another Trisha Yearwood song before I died.

Strange, then, that country music is making a resurgence in my life. For that, I blame the Drive-By Truckers.

The Truckers aren't country per se, but they remind me of what country can be. They, along with bands like My Morning Jacket and Okkervil River, have served as soothing Sherpas that have guided me back into the world of my roots. "This music doesn't have to be boring," they whisper, collectively, into my ear as they guide me into dens replete with wild women and broken hearts.

But My Morning Jacket and Okkervil River are merely steps along the path. Their form of alt-rock/country is exactly what I need to shepherd me to what's next: Wilco, the Jayhawks and Conor Oberst. Wilco's Jeff Tweedy leans in and tells me to be calm; he says no one will make fun of me if I like their brand of alt-country.

And then a lightbulb goes off. I realize I've been listening to country music all along. Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska:" country music. Neil Young's "Harvest:" country music. The National's "Alligator:" well, not really country music, but close. And I like to work The National into as many columns as possible.

But really it comes back to the Drive-By Truckers and their brand of gothic Southern country-rock. They were the gateway drug.

Now they've struck again.

Jason Isbell was a member of DBT for six years. In 2007, he split from the band. All reports say the break was an amicable one. But in a few years, I'll be saying that about the end of my last relationship. I was moderately devastated by Isbell's departure. He, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley shared songwriting and lead-singing duties for the band. It was a combination that resulted in brilliant storytelling and almost yearly album releases. I'd seen the Truckers in a sweaty New Orleans juke joint three days before Hurricane Katrina and had spent the show's two hours in a trance, spellbound by the band's energy and love of the music they were playing.

But alas, those days came to an end. Isbell set out on his own, releasing a solo album called "Sirens of the Ditch" in 2007. He followed that record with this year's "Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit." Both are unabashedly country music, and both are lovely. The songs on Isbell's solo albums are filled with the same brilliant imagery found in Drive-By Truckers songs, with lyrics that will make any red-blooded male chuckle on the inside. For example, here is part of "Try" from "Sirens:"

You can't make a woman sleep alone.
You can't give her loving on the phone.
You can't make her stay her ass at home.
But you try, don't you?

(For a taste, lala.com users can go here. Everyone else, here.)

Isbell's first solo album found its way into my collection six months ago. I procured his second only after I decided to see him live in Kansas City. Listening to those albums made me want to seek out other country artists. Isbell's ability to tell a story through song is preternatural; at 30, he sings like he's a world-weary 75. I was excited about the genre again. I was excited to watch Isbell in person.

The mood was right. I was thrilled to be at a venue that was new to me. My friend John and I had just eaten the biggest pizza I'd seen in months. I was enjoying that I was surrounded by rockabilly hipsters who were eagerly anticipating the Reverend Horton Heat, who was the night's headliner. It was a cool, beautiful Friday night in July. Our between-set time had been spent talking to cute bisexual girls.

[+] EnlargeJason Isbell
Andrew H. Walker/Getty ImagesJason Isbell's intimate music and lyrics likely won't ever be coming around to big arenas.

But Isbell's show …

I don't even want to write it, because I like his music so much. And I'm afraid you'll turn on him if I do …

But …

I was a little bored.

(Cringing.)

Onstage, Isbell was cool. He sung well. His band was great. But his songs -- while powerful, meaningful and occasionally devastating -- are, well, slow and depressing. They're a lot like the country music I associate with my father's father, even though I'm not sure that man ever even listened to country music.

As I stood there in the wood chips, wanting to like the show more than I did, it dawned on me that my boredom at the show was the reason Toby Keith has a job that doesn't involve manual labor. Country music -- "real" country music, that is -- is a niche genre. It was never meant to be anything else. Real country music is meant to be consumed in a lonely bar with whiskey in hand. It was never intended to be an experience shared by 18,000 people and promoted by Live Nation. Its nature is to be intimate; the lyrics are personal, vulnerable and heart-breaking.

I understand, too, that I probably wasn't being fair to Isbell. It was only natural for me to compare his set to the one I once saw the Drive-By Truckers play. The Truckers were made for outdoor shows on Friday nights. Isbell, by himself, isn't. And that's OK.

So the next time he comes to town and plays at a roadside bar in Douglas County, I'll be there. And the next time I'm feeling worn out by life, I'll put on one of his albums and be whisked away to Muscle Shoals, Ala.

I won't expect him, however, to sell out the Sprint Center or to provide the soundtrack to any 13-year-old's love life. I'll leave that to Clint Black.

Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams: the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. His book "Can I Keep My Jersey?" -- which is available in paperback -- can be found here. He can be found at Twitter (Twitter.com/paulthenshirley) and you can e-mail him here.

ALSO SEE